I wasn’t exactly taking the long view when it came time to choose a college and sign a student loan agreement. My mother had died in December of my senior year of high school after a long battle with cancer; I could barely make it through a 40-minute class period without bolting from the room with a crippling anxiety attack; and I was just figuring out I’m gay and struggling with that reality. In the midst of all that, why would I be concerned with how much debt I was taking on?
Before my mother died, I was supposed to go to the local university, where I’d applied early decision. It was the same school my two older sisters had graduated from, which had been the sole criteria for choosing it. After my mother was gone, I experienced a change of heart — although maybe “change of heart” isn’t the most accurate description. What I had was a complete and utter loss of heart. I remember being in the backseat of a car, staring out the window into a rainy night and thinking: It’s over for me. I’m done. I can do anything now, and it doesn’t matter.
Taken out of context, this same realization — I can do anything — might have felt like freedom, like hope, like exactly what a teenager on the brink of adulthood should, under the best conditions, believe about her future. And looking back now, I recognize it as a moment of profound survival. On a subconscious level, I must have sensed that what I most needed in order to go on was to leave. Leave my house. Leave the suburbs. Go to a college where nobody knew me and start fresh.
I can’t tell you how much debt I took on to attend New York University, because at the time I didn’t care to notice. And besides, what teenager has a clue about interest rates? What I can tell you is that by my mid-20s, I owed somewhere around $50,000.
As the years ticked by, the remorse began to settle in. What was I thinking choosing such an expensive school and majoring in English? And who was to blame for this financial disaster I now faced? Month after month, with each student loan payment, I would be taken right back to that darker time in my life. It served as a periodic reminder that no matter how far I tried to go, how much I tried to change, how set I was upon reinvention, my debt would drag me down. It was difficult not to slip back into that well-worn groove of teenage self-loathing each time I had to put off something I wanted because of my debt. Things like vacation, dental appointments and an apartment without rats living in the walls.
Apparently, blaming oneself for debilitating student debt is common. As opposed to placing the blame on, say, exorbitant tuition prices, cuts in federal aid, entry into the job market in a time of dwindling salaries, a decline in social mobility or the fact that much of the burden of paying for college has shifted from governments onto the individual.
I learned this much from a book I stumbled upon just around my 30th birthday called Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead by Tamara Draut. You would have thought I was reading A Little Life the way it made me cry. Draut made me realize I wasn’t alone in my struggle to pay off my school loans and ever-increasing credit card debt while barely making rent each month. I wasn’t the only one finding it impossible to save money for my future and feeling like a failure as a result. This had become a defining characteristic of my generation. I remember setting the book down and thinking: My God. Maybe it isn’t all my own fault.
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After all, I hadn’t actually been that irresponsible. My motivations may not have been traditional, but I still did exactly what a young working-class kid was supposed to do: I did well in school, got into a good college of my choice and accepted what was offered to me in order to pay for top-notch higher education. I borrowed all that money because I felt like my life was over, and it bought me an entirely new lease. No, it shouldn’t have been that expensive. But N.Y.U. opened up my world in ways that I don’t think would have been possible had I stayed in my hometown and gone to the local university. In the progressive, tolerant environment of the college, I discovered a broad-minded community of friends and professors who helped me better understand myself, my place in society and the kind of socially conscious adult I wanted to be. In other words, my liberal arts college education functioned exactly as it should have. So what was I feeling so bad about?
As our nation’s student debt crisis has reached a breaking point, we’ve been hearing lots of talk about student loan forgiveness. It’s taken me 20 years to forgive myself for my loan — and just as long to pay it off. Yes, “forgiveness” has finally entered the national conversation, and it seems to me like just the right word.
Camille Perri is the author of The Assistants.